Eric J. Chaisson
Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature

"Neither thought alone nor belief alone will ever make the unknown known." (p. 5)
Not for the easily bored or fan of only those titles which don't go beyond "popular science," Chaisson pulls everything (including biology and social sciences to some degree) under the umbrella of physics. The emphasis of Cosmic Evolution is that increasing complexity is a fact of Nature. In order to derive this conclusion the author spends a great deal of the book discussing thermodynamics. Contrary to half-baked Creationist claims that evolution is impossible because of the second law of thermodynamics, Chaisson shows in great detail how diversity thrives and complexity grows right along with increasing entropy. His discussion, at times, rings familiar for those who have read Richard Dawkins's discussion of how science causes more wonder than it smothers.
Complexity is a, and perhaps the, key to both deep and broad understanding in the natural sciences, not only to show that the wonder and delight for our natural cosmos is comprehensible, but specifically to show how the cosmos can be comprehended without destroying the wonder. For when we have deciphered the underlying pattern and have explained the wonderful in Nature, a new wonder will arise at how complexity has been forged out of simplicity, conscious beings out of primitive elements. (p. 11)
So how does complexity form out of a universe moving towards greater entropy and overall equilibrium? Through non-equilibrium states. Ever since matter began forming in the universe, thousands of years after the big bang, non-equilibrium states (especially in the localities of forming and existing solar systems, galaxies, clusters, etc.) have been on the rise, creating ever increasingly complex structures. Chaisson states (in italics even) that "cosmic expansion itself is the prime move for the construction of a hierarchy of complex entities throughout the Universe" (p. 126) and "in an expanding Universe, both the disorder and the order can increase simultaneously--a fundamental duality, strange but true." (p. 129)

The latter half of the book deals primarily with "energy rate densities" which Chaisson uses as his benchmark or measure of complexity. Although I bet there are exceptions which Chaisson didn't bring to the surface (and which will cause critics to claim that he is being anthropocentric contrary to his repeated assertions that he isn't) he estimates the free energy rate densities for a variety of things ranging from galaxies to planets to plants to human brains and, finally, human culture claiming that each has a higher rate and hence higher complexity than that "below" it. He, in essence, recreates "The Great Chain of Being" that Gould tried to destroy in Full House.

Energy flows are the key for Chaisson--and not just for solar systems and galaxies. They extend to biology, humans, and culture. As he puts it,

living systems evolved in the past within environments rich in energy flux, and thus have inherited the means to acquire the needed energy flow via metabolic processes. The pathways open to biological evolution are constrained, not because few solutions exist but because energy resources are limited; natural selection exploits energy flows, determining which flows are conducive to the system, thereby apparently optimizing them. (p. 180)
I'm not sure if I buy everything in Cosmic Evolution. The author may be trying to use a hammer for everything and not just for the nails they were intended for. I'd be interested to see critiques, especially from biologists. Chaisson has problems with his presentation, making things less than clear and persuasive. He seems to have realized this, or perhaps someone made a similar comment to him, as near the end of the book he includes a "Frequently Asked Questions" section. The FAQ is certainly more straightforward than the rest, but it seems rather artificial for a book. FAQs work better, and are better suited, on websites or as magazine-type articles. Most readers, however, will probably be best off starting with (and maybe reading only) the FAQ.
"Whether stars, planets, or life, the salient point seems much the same: The basic differences, both within and among these categories, are of degree, not of kind. We have discerned a common basis on which to compare all material structures, from the early Universe to the present--again, from big bang to humankind inclusively." (p. 191)
from the publisher:
We are connected to distant space and time not only by our imaginations but also through a common cosmic heritage. Emerging now from modern science is a unified scenario of the cosmos, including ourselves as sentient beings, based on the time-honored concept of change. From galaxies to snowflakes, from stars and planets to life itself, we are beginning to identify an underlying ubiquitous pattern penetrating the fabric of all the natural sciences--a sweepingly encompassing view of the order and structure of every known class of object in our richly endowed universe.

This is the subject of Eric Chaisson's new book. In Cosmic Evolution Chaisson addresses some of the most basic issues we can contemplate: the origin of matter and the origin of life, and the ways matter, life, and radiation interact and change with time. Guided by notions of beauty and symmetry, by the search for simplicity and elegance, by the ambition to explain the widest range of phenomena with the fewest possible principles, Chaisson designs for us an expansive yet intricate model depicting the origin and evolution of all material structures. He shows us that neither new science nor appeals to nonscience are needed to understand the impressive hierarchy of the cosmic evolutionary story, from quark to quasar, from microbe to mind.

Chaisson conducts an intriguing tour over vast realms of time and space. A lucid and sprightly guide, he brings forth original and provocative observations, while gathering a host of wonders in his cosmic embrace. --Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Using the leitmotif of rising complexity and order, Eric Chaisson delivers the epic of creation as understood by modern science, from microsecond zero to the origin of life on Earth. His command of the subject and clarity of exposition are admirable. --E.O. Wilson

Eric Chaisson has written a definitive synthesis of what he calls a golden age of astrophysics and biochemistry. Cosmic Evolution presents a dramatic new world view for the twenty-first century, which provides a potential guide for understanding the nature of all material things. Every scientist, indeed anyone interested in humanity's future, should read this masterly and unique book. --Brian Fagan, University of California, Santa Barbara

Eric Chaisson has thought deeply about the growth of complexity in the universe, as life and intelligence appear to have emerged from chaos. An astronomer whose lucid lectures draw a wide audience, Chaisson here tackles the issue head on, with conclusions that are as fascinating as life itself. --George Field, Harvard University

A superb synthesis. Chaisson convincingly shows that free energy processing rates spurred the growth of complexity in the cosmos. Highly recommended. --Hubert Reeves, Astrophysicist, C.N.R.S. France

This century ushers in a new unified view of Nature. We can see that the mechanisms of the stars and the structure of bacteria are governed by the same fundamental processes. We can detect the link between the hottest fusion reactions in gamma bursters and the essential metabolic reactions which give rise to and sustain life. Eric Chaisson has long been one of our most passionate and articulate informants about this emerging conception of the cosmos. Cosmic Evolution tells this new story in language anyone can understand. --Gerald Soffen, Senior Astrobiologist, NASA

A fascinatingly synthetic book that unifies evolution from the Big Bang through biology and human culture. Chaisson is at once quantitative and poetic, grounding his work in physics while celebrating intelligence as 'the animated conduit through which the Universe comes to know itself.' Cosmic Evolution shows us a universe teeming with the complex products of evolution, including ourselves. --Richard Wolfson, Professor of Physics, Middlebury College